Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

On the road to southwestern Minnesota, a photo essay December 19, 2017

A former country school near Essig along U.S. Highway 14.


TWICE A YEAR, my husband and I head west from our Faribault home to my native southwestern Minnesota for gatherings with my extended family. We travel solely with destination in mind, not deviating to meander through small towns and explore. We get on Interstate 35 in Faribault, exit onto U.S. Highway 14 in Owatonna and then follow the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway all the way to our destination 2.25 hours away in Lamberton. That would be in Redwood County, just 10 miles east of Walnut Grove.

Near Janesville, this billboard sparkles in the morning light.

Everything along this route is familiar to me from the curves in the highway to the billboards to the farm sites and my favorite barns west of Springfield. While sometimes the drive can seem like forever, especially when wind whips snow to create iffy driving conditions, mostly I enjoy the rural route.

At the beginning of our trip, I photographed this farm site west of Owatonna. The farther west we drove, the greyer the skies became.

Enjoy this photo essay along U.S. Highway 14, aiming west toward the prairie into some of our state’s richest farmland as we headed back for the holidays last Saturday.

Red barns splash color into the rural landscape, here near Janesville.


An ethanol plant near Janesville breaks the monotony of farm fields.


Highway 14 takes us through New Ulm. I spotted this catchy and festive billboard on the west end of town.


You know you’re in the heart of farmland when you see a cash corn price posted on a sign, this one at Christensen Farms near Sleepy Eye.


This reindeer statue stands along the east edge of Sleepy Eye. It’s there year-round.


Weathered by wind and weather, this barn sits west of Sleepy Eye.


A row of vintage trucks are parked atop a hill on the east edge of Springfield.


One of my favorite barns on a farm site west of Springfield.


We reach our destination in Lamberton where grain elevators mark this rural community.


© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Happy spring from Minnesota & DQ March 20, 2017


The Dairy Queen along old U.S. Highway 14 in Janesville, Minnesota, in 2012. The sign is vintage late 1940s or early 1950s. Click here to read my story about the Janesville DQ. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

HAPPY FIRST DAY of spring, dear readers!

If you live in a cold weather state like me, you welcome March 20, even if the weather and landscape feel and appear more winter than spring. It’s a mental thing for us Minnesotans, a reminder that the “real spring” is only months away. Spring, in my Minnesota mind, arrives in May.

Over at Dairy Queen, they’re going by the calendar, celebrating spring’s official arrival today with “Free Cone Day.” You can get one free small vanilla ice cream cone at any non-mall participating DQ in the U.S.

And, if you’re so inclined, you can donate to the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, DQ’s March 20 fundraiser focus. Because, you know, you’re getting that freebie and you’re generous.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Happy Halloween, Minnesota style October 31, 2016

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I was working in the lab driving into Janesville late one night Friday afternoon, when my eyes beheld an eerie sight…Frankenstein by the train tracks.




I was working in the lab exploring Hayfield late one night one Saturday morning, when my eyes beheld an eerie sight…a sign for Kuster’s Dead & Breakfast.




I was working in the lab walking in Zumbrota late one night early one morning, when my eyes beheld an eerie sight…a witch/ghost with an identity crisis.




I was working in the lab visiting the House of Kuster in Hayfield late one night morning, when my eyes beheld an eerie sight…skulls staggered along a stairway.




I was working in the lab checking my texts late one night early one morning, when my eyes beheld an eerie a crazy sight…my six-month-old granddaughter disguised as Poppy the troll. I laughed and laughed and laughed. Deep belly laughs. I’m still laughing.




Happy Halloween!

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Troll image of my granddaughter, Izzy, is courtesy of her mom, Amber. Izzy’s paternal uncle works for DreamWorks Animation, which is releasing the movie, Trolls, in a few days. He shipped the Poppy hat from California to Minnesota for his niece.


About those creepy clowns October 14, 2016



POKING AROUND MS. MAC’S ANTIQUES in Janesville on a recent Friday afternoon, I came across clowns nestled in a basket. There was nothing frightening about them. They’re just dolls crafted from fabric—some homemade, others manufactured.

But seeing them on display got me thinking about the clown sightings around the country. Last Saturday evening a clown costumed 15-year-old boy was arrested in Crookston, Minnesota, for allegedly scaring people with a butcher knife. All across the U.S., creepy clowns are showing up in communities, creating fear and sometimes chaos.

Even McDonalds has been impacted. The fast food chain is limiting appearances by Ronald McDonald, apparently thinking he best keep a low profile until this whole clown thing blows over.




In my southern Minnesota community, police are being proactive, issuing this statement last week on the Faribault Police Department Facebook page:

We have now gotten a couple of calls about clowns around town. These are actually young people dressed as scary / crazy / kooky clowns. We have no information to indicate they pose a threat to anyone locally, other than being creepy.

The clown craze is the latest attempt at social media influenced hysteria. There have been several arrests around the country in recent days for making terroristic threats and disrupting public school functions.

If you see, or are concerned about, clowns hanging around, please call us and we will gladly check them out.


Clown masks can be scary or fun, depending.

I photographed this clown Halloween mask last October at Antiques of the Midwest in Albert Lea. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.


In neighboring Kenyon, noted Police Chief Lee Sjolander isn’t taking things quite as seriously. If you follow his department’s Facebook page, you know that Sjolander thinks, writes and acts outside the box. Here’s the Chief’s take on the clown issue:

I was asked by a parent for my opinion on their young child dressing up as a clown this Halloween. I was told this has been planned for a while and I also know our Kenyon Park & Rec. are planning a clown theme for their Halloween event as well.

Here is my opinion. Dress as a clown if you like, and here is why…

We live in a small town, we know almost everyone, and I’m not one to fall into conspiracy theories, rumormongering, fear, or hoaxes. We have had no “clown sightings” and if we do, we will follow up on them just like we would any other call.

I’m also a huge supporter of common sense. Now a young child dressed as a clown walking with their parents or friends holding a bag of candy is way different than an adult dressed as a clown carrying a weapon and scaring people. That’s like someone dressing as a deer and walking through the woods during deer season… Not the best thought out plan and that can lead to someone getting hurt.

When you say “clown” in Kenyon, most people think of Frank and Bob, who are two of the most loved and respected shriner clowns you could ever meet, and they are local residents.

So there you have it. My opinion. I think I’ll dress as a small town cop again this year, like I do every year…

Please use good judgment, common sense, and if you have any questions or concerns this Halloween, please feel free to contact us.


Ron, proprietor at Ms. Mac's Antiques, showed me this clown tucked into a storage room. It's a 1940s balloon machine.

Ron, proprietor at Ms. Mac’s Antiques, showed me this clown tucked into a storage room. It’s a 1940s balloon machine.


I don’t understand this whole clown thing. I don’t understand why anyone considers it a good idea to dress as a clown for the purpose of scaring, threatening and/or harming people. There’s nothing funny about this. Nothing at all.

Clowns are supposed to make us smile, make us laugh, bring us joy. They are not meant to terrorize.

Legitimate clowns are, as Chief Sjolander writes, to be loved and respected.


© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


In Janesville: Discovering Ms. Mac’s Antiques October 13, 2016



ACROSS FROM THE OLD GRAIN ELEVATOR, in the solid brick building that once housed a bank, Ms. Mac’s Antiques anchors a corner of downtown Janesville.




I was delighted when, last Friday afternoon, the OPEN flag fluttered from a post outside this southeastern Minnesota business.




My expectations were not particularly high. But, surprise. I stepped into a shop so skillfully and artfully designed that it could be featured in the pages of a national magazine like CountryLiving.






My favorite piece in the entire shop because this statue reminds me of me as a young girl.

My favorite piece in the entire shop because this statue reminds me of me as a young girl.


For a few moments I just stood there, taking in the vignettes displaying a plethora of collectible, vintage, antique, architectural salvage and other merchandise.


Ms. Mac's signature crow sales tag.

Ms. Mac’s signature crow sales tag.


And then, after a quick perusal of the front ground level section of Ms. Mac’s, I introduced myself as a blogger to the man behind the counter. He’s Ron Hardeman, known as Mr. Mac in this family-owned business. Susie McConville is Ms. Mac, the talented designer. And the couple’s daughter, Jessica Oberpriller, is Ms. Mac, too. She runs a second shop, Ms. Mac’s, too, in Carver.


The picket fence mimics the shape of the old grain elevator across the street.

A section of picket fence inside the shop mimics the shape of the old grain elevator across the street.


While Susie still works full-time as a clinic manager in nearby Mankato, Ron runs the shop solo weekdays. He quickly obliged my request to photograph Ms. Mac’s Antiques. As we chatted, I learned that the couple, who live in Mankato, fell in love with the old bank building. I can see why. It has character with worn wooden floors, high ceilings, nooks and generous light pouring in through an abundance of windows.


There's lots of merchandise in the basement.

There’s lots of merchandise in the basement.






The basement also provides space for additional treasures.




Still, even a good bones appealing historic building does not make the shop. An eye and hand for displaying merchandise do. And Susie possesses both. Plus, a good strong business sense, connections and networking also make this business work. Ms. Mac’s customer base stretches across the U.S. with antique dealers coming to this small Minnesota farming community to find merchandise they can’t find in their locales.




As I poked around, I assessed that Ms. Mac’s offers an eclectic mix of unique merchandise not typically found in Minnesota antique shops I’ve visited. And, no, the Hamm’s beer bear is not for sale.






Mother Hubbard items come from a Mankato flour mill.

Mother Hubbard items come from a Mankato flour mill.







Sitting on the front counter, this Scripto service station is being used and is not for sale.

Sitting on the front counter, this Scripto service station is being used and is not for sale.


Even the OPEN sign on the front door is creatively appealing.

Even the OPEN sign on the front door is creatively appealing.


FYI: Ms. Mac’s Antiques is open from 10:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Click here for more information.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Appreciating a vintage Dairy Queen sign in Janesville August 22, 2012

ICE CREAM. It has to be the single treat with the most universal appeal. And I expect Dairy Queen rates as the company most universally known for its soft-serve ice cream.

With 6,000 plus Dairy Queens throughout the world, this fast food franchise certainly has established itself as a dominating presence since the first DQ opened in 1940 in Joliet, Illinois.

The Dairy Queen along old U.S. Highway 14 in Janesville on a recent Sunday afternoon.

Within 40 miles of my home are 35 Dairy Queens, including two right here in Faribault, and a walk-up DQ along old U.S. Highway 14 in Janesville some 30 miles away.

On a recent Sunday afternoon while passing through Janesville, located east of Mankato and with a population of about 2,100, I photographed the DQ. I wasn’t hungry, having just eaten too much at a church potluck. But I didn’t let that keep me from stopping at the DQ to photograph this long-time business with the vintage signage.

The vintage Dairy Queen sign that drew me to the Janesville DQ.

It’s the sign that caused me to stop because, well, I like and appreciate old signs as works of art. They’re also classic, charming cultural and historic icons in a community.

I was a bit dismayed, though, when the woman working the counter suggested that once the lights fizzle on the sign, it will be replaced with a newer, more modern DQ sign because, really, who could fix the lighting?

I insisted that shouldn’t happen and may have pleaded a bit. “You can’t do that.”

But she seemed resigned to the sign’s eventual replacement.

On the bottom edge of the sign, I noticed LEROY SIGN REG.

Not so fast. I noticed LEROY SIGN REG printed along the lower edge of the DQ sign. That was just enough for me to google the company and track down the sign’s origin with Leroy Signs & Manufacturing of Brooklyn Park.

After viewing a photo I took of the Janesville sign, Ralph Leroy “Lee” Reiter III told me it dates back to the late 1940s or early 1950s and is one of about 50 made by his grandfather, Ralph Leroy Reiter, Sr. While the younger Reiter doesn’t know exactly how many of these specific signs were placed in Minnesota, he says his third-generation company recently refurbished one in Columbia Heights and he knows of one in Robbinsdale and another in Brooklyn Park.

I was especially pleased to learn that the 75-year-old family business he co-owns with siblings Kaj Reiter and Andria Reiter can replace the neon lighting and otherwise refurbish the porcelain enamel finished vintage DQ sign.

On the other side of the DQ, looking toward downtown Janesville.

Lee Reiter has high praise for the condition of the Janesville DQ sign. “It’s one of the cleanest I’ve seen and in really good condition.”

He observed, though, that the sign may have been touched up some. You could fool me. The sign as designed decades ago—DQ designed and Leroy Sign made the sign—allowed it to take in water, Lee noted.

Early on in DQ’s history, Leroy Signs made signs for DQ, last doing so about five years ago.

As for that vintage DQ sign in Janesville, Lee says if the owner ever wants to get rid of it, he’ll take it. That, in itself, should tell you something, don’t you think?

You know you’re in a rural town when you see a combine driving down the street like this John Deere which passed the Janesville DQ.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Photographing a mission festival near Janesville August 9, 2012

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WHEN I PHOTOGRAPH an event such as the mission festival last Sunday at Marquardt’s Grove, rural Janesville, I slip into my sleuth persona. Hey, I read Nancy Drew mysteries as a young girl, what can I say?

The overall scene at Sunday’s mission fest, looking toward the stage and worship areas.

Perhaps it’s not as much sleuthing as observing which, I suppose, is the essential component of good detective work. First I’ll view the big picture, the overall scene. And then I’ll begin to break it down, to notice the details.

It takes concentration, effort, and an ability to understand the smaller parts which, pieced together, comprise the whole.

This I do all the while also trying to remember what I am hearing and the general mood of the setting. It is not easy because I sometimes become so zoned in on shooting images that I shut down my other senses.

The other challenge comes in being respectful to those attending such events. On Sunday I was especially concerned about that given this was a worship service. I think, I hope, that after awhile worshipers no longer noticed me slinking around trees, weaving my way past temporary plank pews or pointing my camera down at their hands and toward their faces.

Yes, I expect observers sometimes wonder what exactly I am photographing. Digital photography has unleashed my creativity. I aim to tell a story with my photos, to take you there, to show you the details that make life especially interesting.

Here then are some of my detailed photos—the ones you likely would not think of taking—from the mission festival of Freedom and Wilton Lutheran churches.

The first detail: the sign on the front steps of Freedom Church about a mile from the mission site in Marquardt’s Grove.

The jacks, as they are termed, which hold the planks in place, have been used for some 60 years. The planks, for the “pews,” are borrowed from a local lumberyard and then returned after the mission festival.

Sharlou Quiram measured the makeshift altar before crafting a cross design quilt of satins, velvets and brocades nearly 10 years ago. It hides the altar, “a bunch of really old board nailed together,” says Len Marquardt, and in use for 60 years. Flowers come from parishioners’ gardens, patios, decks, yards.

When I took this photo of the choir, I was aiming to emphasize the outdoor setting in the woods.

Vintage pocket-size songbooks were boxed and stashed on the stage behind the Freedom Band. The first hymn of the day was “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty.” At the end of the service these books, which have been used for decades, were collected.

Some of the music used by the Freedom Band was transposed decades ago from a hymnal.

Ava, 15 months, hangs out at the pop and candy stand with her dad, Ben.

A 12-volt battery and converter amplifier powered the speaker system for the worship service.

Desserts, including coveted homemade blueberry pie, and an abundance of main dishes and salads lined makeshift tables (boards supported by sawhorses) at the potluck following the worship service.

Enjoying the potluck dinner in Marquardt’s Grove while diners wait in line to dish up food. The vivid colors, the contrast of neon orange and hot pink, caught my visual interest as I captured this photo.

That’s exactly what you think it is, an outhouse in the woods, built from old barn boards. Follow the cow trail and you’re there. The outhouse is meticulously scrubbed every year before the mission fest. The grounds are also cleaned by volunteers who pick up the cow poop and sticks and then mow portions of the pasture as needed. Lynne Holst, wife of guest pastor, the Rev. Dr. Robert Holst, told my husband an interesting story about outhouses. When the Holst family served as missionaries in New Guinea from 1962 – 1968, Pastor Holst asked his wife what she wanted as a birthday gift one year. She thought, then replied, “A new outhouse.” She got her wish.

FYI: Click here to read an earlier blog post about the mission festival.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling